Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



UK punk band formed '76: Joe Strummer (b John Graham Mellor, 21 Aug. '52, Ankara, Turkey; d 22 Dec. 2002), guitar, vocals; Mick Jones (b 26 June '55, London), guitar, vocals; Paul Simonon (b '56, London), bass; Nicky 'Topper' Headon (b '56, Dover), drums. Figureheads of UK punk explosion, they were one of the few bands to capture punk's aggressive, vitriolic energy on record, outclassing and outlasting the Sex Pistols and the rest. Strummer got his name from playing ukulele as a London busker; formed 101'ers with Don Kelleher (who later joined Public Image Ltd), named after the torture room in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, or perhaps after the address of their squat. Simonon and Jones were in seminal (and terrible) London SS. They enlisted Terry Chimes (renamed 'Tory Crimes' for street cred) on drums and called the band Clash after a favourite word of writers of UK tabloid headlines (everything in UK tabloids is a clash, a fury or a storm). They supported the Sex Pistols as a quintet before Levene left, then on Pistols' ill-fated Anarchy tour, and played a one-day punk festival at 100 Club. They castigated everything with ruthless energy: first single '1977' declared 'No Elvis, no Beatles or Stones'; attacked commercial broadcasting ('Capital Radio'), unemployment ('Career Opportunities'), US domination of Europe ('I'm So Bored With The USA'), racism (cover of Junior Murvin's 'Police And Thieves': from the beginning they could do savagely convincing white reggae). Strummer endorsed the Baader-Meinhoff terrorist gang.

They signed with CBS for a six-figure advance but refused to appear on TV's Top Of The Pops; first LP The Clash '77 captured frenzy of the period but was not issued in USA as too crude. 'Complete Control', prod. by Lee Perry, was band's response to unauthorized release of 'Remote Control' as single in UK. Chimes left, replaced by Headon; '78 single '(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais' another searing reggae track; played Rock Against Racism gigs. They were accused of selling out when the second LP Give 'Em Enough Rope was produced '78 at the request of Columbia (CBS/USA) by American Sandy Pearlman, who had worked with the very different Blue Oyster Cult; it lacked the energy of the debut, but had high spots 'English Civil War', 'Stay Free'; made no. 2 in UK but didn't chart in USA. Four-track EP Cost Of Living '79 incl. cover of Sonny Curtis's 'I Fought The Law'. Two-LP set London Calling '79 was regarded by some as their best; produced by cult figure Guy Stevens, including anthemic title cut, rockabilly 'Brand New Cadillac', florid 'Death Or Glory', reggae in 'Jimmy Jazz'. Extended US tours left UK fans feeling as though watching Rolling Stones Mark II, but Clash went out of their way to introduce audiences to their own heroes: Bo Diddley, Mikey Dread, renegade country star Joe Ely. Sporadic singles reinforced power (but 'Bankrobber' '80 was badly produced); while album Sandinista! ('80; three discs for the price of one) is either a masterpiece or sprawling self-indulgence of dense material, incessant dub and reggae treatments. Despite being bored with the USA, they now went full out to crack that market: Strummer reasoned that each time a Clash record was played on the air it kept Fleetwood Mac and their ilk off. UK edition of first LP set USA record for import sales; bowdlerized edition issued in USA didn't do as well. Mini-album 10-inch Black Market Clash released only in USA '80. Amid rumours of estrangement between Strummer and Jones, who wrote songs together, LP Combat Rock '82 overseen by establishment producer Glyn Johns: this album diversified into Eastern and South American influences, drawing on rap, even ballads; featured guests Allen Ginsberg, Ely, Grandmaster Flash, Jones's girlfriend Ellen Foley; it divided fans, some seeing it geared for US market, and comparisons with the Stones were heightened when the band played at big festivals, backing the Who at Shea Stadium. 'Rock The Casbah' big US hit written by Headon, who had become a heroin addict; Jones quit and Strummer reported, 'He said, ''My accountant says I should check with him about writing songs,'' so I said go and write songs with your accountant.' After a hiatus, Nick Sheppard and Vince White replaced Jones; Pete Howard had replaced Headon on drums (who made solo single 'Drummer Man', '85). Manager Bernie Rhodes talked Strummer into re-forming Clash; they played miners' benefits in UK '84, busked acoustically in Northern towns, made poor album Cut The Crap '85 and split, back to nucleus of Strummer and Simonon.

Clash had 16 top 40 singles UK, one in USA: 'Train In Vain (Stand By Me)' '80; were the subject of documentary film Rude Boy '80, following roadie Ray Gange on the road with band. Jones surfaced with LP This Is Big Audio Dynamite '85 with video maker Don Letts, hit single 'E=MC2', 'Medicine Show'; Strummer/Jones contributed to soundtrack of Sid And Nancy: Love Kills '86; Strummer did films Walker '87 (also dir. by Alex Cox) and Permanent Record '88; they collaborated on second Dynamite LP No. 10 Upping Street '86, single 'C'Mon Every Beatbox' (tribute to Eddie Cochran). Headon was jailed for 15 months '87 for supplying heroin to a friend who died. Strummer lost money on a Rock Against the Rich tour '89, a benefit for squatters, but didn't mind putting his money where his mouth was; he appeared in three-part film Lost In Space '89; David Sinclair wrote in The Times that Strummer's first solo album Earthquake Weather '89, like Jones's fourth with Dynamite Megatop Phoenix, had 'that curious half-finished quality that beset the solo albums of both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards'. Simonon formed band Havana 3 A.M. '91. Strummer had relocated to LA, worked with Bob Dylan and with his new band the Latino Rockabilly War. 'Should I Stay Or Should I Go' from Combat Rock was used in a Levi's TV advert and the single became Clash's first UK no. 1 '91. Strummer guested on Where The Wild Things Are '97 by dance-rock trio Agent Provocateur; he formed new band Mescaleros late '90s and toured with it as late as November 2002; died of a heart attack.